Through Tim’s Looking Glass

The life, times and twisted tales of  Tim Burton, director of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland.

Tim Burton on the set of Corpse Bride (2005)

Tim Burton is a lucky man. While most other film directors have to choose between pursuing their personal vision or conforming to the commercial demands of Hollywood’s studio system, Burton has been able to do both. His dark, gothic fairytales – filled with freaks, outsiders and loners – are not the types of films that typically result in box office gold…and yet, somehow, they nearly always do.

Burton has always operated within the mainstream studio system, but has enjoyed an almost unheard-of freedom to pursue his strange, psychologically twisted stories of characters living on the fringe of society. A large proportion of Burton’s fan base certainly see something of themselves in the boy with scissors for hands, the traumatised masked avenger, the cross-dressing Z-grade filmmaker and, now, a 19-year-old girl named Alice who is at a crossroads in her life and doesn’t feel like she fits into society.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, derived from stories and characters in Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, promises to deliver exactly what Burton fans have come to expect from the iconoclastic filmmaker. Burton’s favourite music score composer, Danny Elfman, is on board, regular Burton actors Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as The Red Queen) are present, and the film’s lavish production design and hallucinatory special effects are all set to marvellously create the surreal world that Alice finds down the rabbit-hole.

After the dark and violent Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland is a return to the more family-friendly mode of filmmaking that Burton has previously favoured with films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). As well as Depp and Bonham Carter (to whom Burton is now married), Alice in Wonderland also features actors Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, and horror film legends Christopher Lee and Michael Gough.

Tim Burton directing Mia Wasikowska on the set of Alice in Wonderland (2010)

In the lead role of Alice is an Australian actor, Mia Wasikowska, whom Burton describes as having the quiet strength and old-soul quality that is necessary for his interpretation of Alice. As a young woman at an age of immense emotional turbulence, and in a time when the pressure to get married would have been very strong, a curious and adventurous girl like Alice would have felt detached from the world she lived in. Such qualities make her the perfect Burton protagonist.

Now 51, Burton grew up a bit of an outsider himself. The suburban landscape of Burbank, California, which he later parodied in Edward Scissorhands (1990), may have had the same stifling effect on Burton that Victorian society did on Alice. As a child, Burton was an introvert who sought refuge in darkened cinemas, watching horror and monster movie triple bills. Through these films, the young Burton identified not with the heroes or victims but, rather, the monsters whom he regarded as misunderstood.

Burton’s obsession with misunderstood monsters and outsiders will be on full display for Australian fans at the Tim Burton exhibition, which opens in June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. Coming direct from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibition will include a collection of artworks and objects from Burton’s films, a full retrospective screening and public lectures by the man himself. Many of Burton’s drawings, paintings and puppets will be on display – going all the way back to the start of his career, working as an animator at Disney in 1979.

"Untitled" (Creature Series), Acrylic on canvas by Tim Burton, 1992

At Disney, Burton made a film that was dedicated to his childhood hero, the classic horror actor Vincent Price. Vincent was a short black-and-white stop-motion animation about a young boy who copes with his banal life by imagining he is Price, living a tormented life inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly a deeply personal work for Burton, the film was made more special when Price agreed to narrate it. Price and Burton became extremely close friends, with Price’s role as the Inventor in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands being the horror maestro’s last on-screen appearance (Price died in 1993).

At the age of 26, Burton was already known in the film industry as a unique and innovative voice. When Warner Bros. decided to make a feature film for Paul Reubens’ popular Pee-wee Herman character, from the television series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, they approached Burton. The childlike Pee-wee character and the surreal world he lived in was a natural fit for Burton’s feature film debut, which gave the world a taste of what was to come.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was the beginning of Burton’s long-term collaboration with film score composer Danny Elfman. While Elfman has many other credits to his name, including creating the theme music for The Simpsons, it is his work with Burton for which he is best known. Elfman has scored all but two of Burton’s films. and his use of lush orchestrations and choir vocals captures the combination of playfulness and dark undertones that visually and thematically define Burton’s work.

Burton’s follow-up film, Beetlejuice (1988), starred Michael Keaton as a malevolent bio-exorcist whom a recently deceased couple call upon to rid their home of the yuppie family that has just moved in. Beetlejuice established Burton’s dark comedic sensibility and love of fantasy. His warped vision of the afterlife and its macabre inhabitants were created through an inventive use of production design, special effects, prosthetics and stop-motion animation.

"Untitled" (Trick or Treat), Pen and ink, marker, and collage elements on board by Tim Burton, 1980

While some of Burton’s trademark visual flairs do appear in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, they are on display in force in Beetlejuice, especially his uses of striped patterns, weirdly angled frames, and coiled and twisted features of the natural world. Taking the dark, shadowed, oppressive aesthetic of German Expressionism and combining it with the anarchic dream-logic of Surrealism, Burton’s films are distinctively sinister and playful in their design.

Although Burton’s career had so far been successful, it was his treatment of Batman that really blew him into the stratosphere of Hollywood royalty. Long before Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman saga with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Burton gave birth to the modern superhero film with Batman (1989) and then its superior sequel, Batman Returns (1992). With Keaton starring as the tormented Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the first film, and then Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in the second, Burton’s Batman films returned mainstream credibility to superhero narratives.

While many credit Nolan’s Batman films for returning the character to his dark origins, Burton’s films were, at the time, seen to be doing the same, taking their inspiration from recent highly acclaimed comics by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (300). While keen to distance itself from the camp 1960s television series, Burton’s Batman films nevertheless combined macabre black humour with larger-than-life villains. His films also contained deep psychological insight into the fractured identities of its leading characters, and the way they reflected different aspects of Burton’s beloved loner personality.

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990)

In between Batman and Batman Returns Burton made the first of his two masterpieces: Edward Scissorhands. It also remains Burton’s most personal film, in which one of the misunderstood ‘monsters’ from his beloved old horror movies has to face the prejudices and banality of suburbia. Edward is a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, whose inventor died before replacing the giant scissors at the ends of his arms with real hands. Burton cast Depp to play the lead role, starting their long director–actor relationship. Edward Scissorhands is a near-perfect film with its blend of romance, horror, comedy and satire; its extraordinary production design; Elfman’s glorious score and Depp channelling Burton’s childlike outsider persona.

After Batman Returns, Burton resurrected an old project that he began while at Disney: the stop-motion musical fantasy The Nightmare Before Christmas. While being conceived by Burton and bearing his distinctive visual stamp, Burton ended up handing the film over to Coraline director Henry Selick, who brought to fruition the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who is sick of scaring people and becomes obsessed with Christmas.

Burton’s next project saw him reunited once more with Depp to make his second masterpiece: the biopic Ed Wood (1994), about filmmaker Edward D Wood Jr, who is widely regarded to be the worst filmmaker of all time. During the 1950s Wood made notorious clunkers such as the cross-dressing exploitation film Glen or Glenda (Wood himself cross-dressed), and the sci-fi horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994)

Instead of ridiculing Wood, Burton’s Ed Wood is an affectionate and respectful film about a director whose vision and enthusiasm would not be dampened by any obstacles (including a significant lack of talent). Burton possibly saw a bit of himself in Wood as they shared a similar taste in movies, and both befriended a famous horror actor and gave them their last onscreen appearances (Burton with Price; Wood with the legendary Dracula actor Béla Lugosi). They were also both attracted to society’s fringe dwellers. Maybe Burton felt lucky that, unlike Wood, he was able to creatively refine and channel his visions into products that were embraced instead of reviled.

After Ed Wood, Burton’s films temporarily lost some of their edge, and for the late 1990s and early 2000s his films didn’t quite reach the same heights as his earlier work. His all-star 1996 flying saucer spoof, Mars Attacks, was a fun homage to the types of paranoid 1950s Red Menace films that Wood would have loved, but it was a one-joke film (though admittedly a very funny joke). Burton followed up with Sleepy Hollow (1999), a dark and violent retelling of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman story with several nods to the classic British Hammer Horror films. In 2001, Burton made a ‘reimagining’ of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes and, despite being visually impressive (to be expected with any Burton film,) it was easily Burton’s weakest.

Helena Bonham Carter with Tim Burton on the set of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

In 2003, and following the death of his parents, Burton directed Big Fish. Often-overlooked, it is one of Burton’s most emotionally rewarding films, dealing with the power of storytelling with a strong father–son reconciliation theme. After taking on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Burton returned to the familiar terrain of stop-motion animated gothic fairytales with Corpse Bride (2005). This was followed in 2007 with an adaptation of the violent melodrama Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical. A Danny Elfman score was absent, due to the presence of Sondheim’s original music, but Sweeney Todd was still classic Burton with its combination of black humour, stylised violence and quirky fantasy sequences.

Now, in 2010, Burton shows no signs of slowing down. Alice in Wonderland has fans worldwide in frenzied anticipation, and the feature-length version of his 1984 short film, Frankenweenie, is in development for a potential 2011 release. Not bad for an introverted kid who dared to dream of a world where the loners and freaks who hid in the shadows were the heroes. The world of Tim Burton just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.

The Tim Burton exhibition is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne from 24 June until 10 October 2010. Alice in Wonderland was released 4 March 2010.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 349, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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